Exploring the USA by road is definitely one of the best ways to experience everything this incredible country has to offer. From exploring a state like California, to taking a classic road trip like Route 66, or just thoroughly exploring a section of the Pacific Coast Highway – hitting the open road in the US is a thoroughly rewarding experience.
I personally also love driving in the US. It’s a really car friendly country, with big, well maintained roads, clear signage, and no shortage of places to visit.
That said, coming from the UK, there are definitely a few things I’ve had to learn in order to have the best driving experience as a Brit in the US. Luckily I have an American wife who is used to driving in the US to help me (e.g, yell) when I am doing something wrong!
In today’s post, I’m going to share what I’ve learnt from numerous driving experiences in the US, generally from the perspective of a UK driver, but these tips should come in handy for anyone who is driving in America for the first time, or just wants a reminder of what driving in the US is like.
Let’s get started with my:
Tips for Driving in the USA
One of the first things to be aware of with the USA is that there are generally two types of law – federal laws, which apply to the whole country, and state laws, which vary depending on the state you are in.
The majority of traffic laws are set at a state level, which means that they vary depending on the state you are in – things like speed limits, age limits and drink or drug driving laws.
Some things are country wide of course. All traffic for example drives on the right (with the exception of the US Virgin Islands), you need a driving license to drive, and there are speed limits on all roads, although these vary by state.
The age at which you are legally allowed to drive alone on a full driving license in the US varies by state, but falls between 16 and 18 years of age. Here’s a full list of legal driving ages by state.
As a visitor, you will generally find that most car hire companies will require you to be over 21 to rent a car, and there is usually a surcharge for renting a car if you are under 25. See more below on this subject in the car rental section.
As with every country, there are some basic rules for driving that you need to observe. These are:
- Drive on the right hand side of the road (except in the US Virgin Islands!)
- Observe all posted speed limits.
- Don’t drive if you are over the legal blood alcohol limit, in all states this is a blood alcohol concentration at or above 0.08 percent. Penalties vary by state, but basically, you don’t want to do it.
- You must stop at all STOP signs (see below for more information on STOP signs).
- You must stop for stopped school buses with flashing lights and a stop sign (more below on school buses).
- At least the driver and front seat passenger must wear a seat-belt – see below for more on seat belts.
Like nearly every country in the world, the US uses traffic lights to control traffic. Lights can be red, yellow or green. These colors mean:
- Red – stop. As you would imagine, red means stop, and must stop at a red traffic light. There will be a line on the road marking where you should stop if you are the first car to arrive at the light – otherwise you just stop in line behind other waiting traffic. Note that in some situations you are allowed to proceed after stopping, even on a red light – see “turning on a red traffic light” below.
- Yellow – you must come to a stop at the stop line. If you are moving too quickly to safely stop, for example you are about to cross the stop line and the light turns from green to yellow as you approach, you may proceed, however if you can safely stop it is advisable to do so and not try to “beat the light”.
- Green – proceed. The light goes from red directly to green, at which point you may continue. If a light is green as you approach it, you may continue to travel, although be aware that if it changes to yellow you are required to stop unless it is unsafe to do so.
Speed limits vary by road and state, so there’s no one-size fits all answer here. Speed limits are in miles per hour, and some roads have posted minimum speed limits as well as maximum speed limits that you have to obey. Limits vary from 15mph all the way up to 85mph on one rural road in Texas.
The best advice is to follow all posted speed limit signs, and learn what the usual limits are for different road types and locations in the state or states you are driving in. For a full breakdown of speed limits by state, look at this list.
Hiring a Vehicle
If you have a full valid license from your home country, then you can hire a vehicle in the USA, although there are some restrictions to be aware of.
In the majority of states, there is no legal requirement for a hire company to rent you a car, and they are at their discretion as to who they rent to.
Nearly all hire car companies have minimum age restrictions and will charge a fee if you are under a certain age – the majority of companies charge extra if you are under 25, and most will not rent to you if you are under 21. In addition, if you are under 25 you might find that you aren’t able to hire the more high-end car models. There is usually no upper age limit, however if you are over 70 it is worth confirming that this won’t be a problem.
To hire a vehicle, you will usually need to use a credit card to pay for it, and many companies will place a hold on your card for a fixed amount, to cover them in the event of accidents. Our tip would be to find a credit card that includes liability cover and accident cover for car rental, so you can avoid the very high fees that rental car companies charge for this service. Alternatively, if that’s not an option, you can take out third party insurance which offers the same type of cover at a fraction of the cost – read more about that here.
You may also have car rental insurance attached to your own car insurance policy at home so check that as well to see if it would cover a rental car in the U.S. Note that if you do have full coverage via your credit card or own insurance policy, you have to decline coverage by the rental car agency to be able to use your insurance in most cases. Be clear in how you are covered and where!
You will also need a full and valid drivers license. Some rental car companies will require this to be in English, so if your license is not issued in English, you may need either an International Drivers Permit or a certified translation of your original license, both of which you will need to obtain prior to leaving your home country. If your license is not in English, we’d recommend getting the International Drivers Permit even if it is not required as it will also be helpful if you get pulled over or there are any other issues while driving.
Personally, I rented a car using a French drivers license in the USA and the hire companies I used generally did not need to see an English translation, however, check the rental conditions beforehand to be sure. For more on the IDP, see here.
If you are looking to hire a vehicle, we recommend that you take a look at Priceline to compare car hire deals across 17 different providers, including the biggest names in the business, to get a great deal for your trip.
We have also often used and can recommend Enterprise, we generally find that they come up with the best deals when we’re looking to hire a car – especially for one way trips – in the USA.
The US has a number of road types. These, in our experience, can be broadly categorised as follows:
As the name suggests, an Interstate is a road that runs across states. These can be compared to Motorways in the UK, or the autobahns in Germany. They are usually at least two lanes, and they have on and off ramps rather than stop signs or traffic lights.
Interstates keep the same number regardless of state – Interstate 40 for example, runs through eight states, and is called Interstate 40 in all of them.
Maximum speeds on the Interstate vary by state, from 60 mph through to 80 mph. Speed limits are clearly posted and should be obeyed.
A State Road is specific to a state. State Road 54 in one State is going to be a different road to a State road in a another state.
State roads vary from dual-carriageway styles through to single lane highways, and as they pass through towns, cities and villages, the speed limit can vary from as low as 20 mph up to 75 mph. As always, check local state regulation and obey posted speed limits.
A county road is any road that is maintained by the local county authority, rather than the state or federal system. County roads are usually smaller, slower roads, and they have a “C” or “CR” designation, followed by a number.
They do vary in size and quality, from freeway sized right through to unpaved roads, depending on the area, traffic, and local county budget. Again, as they vary hugely in quality and size, speed limits on County Roads also vary tremendously.
Stop signs were a source of much confusion as I got to grips with driving in the US. Not so much the stopping, which is obvious, but the way that at road intersections, the STOP signs are used to dictate traffic priority.
It seems easy in principle. If two road intersect, there are four “entrances” and four “exits” to the intersection. In the UK, this would be handled with either a traffic light or a roundabout. In the US, the way it works is that if multiple vehicles arrive at the STOP intersection, priority is given to the first vehicle that arrives.
This is only the case if it’s an “all way” STOP, i.e., all the entrances to the intersection have a STOP sign. Sometimes, this is not the case, meaning you have to give way to all through traffic.Sometimes this can be tricky to tell, and you have to look carefully to see what kind of STOP intersection.
In the majority of cases, the STOP sign will be clearly marked to say it is an all way (e.g., 4-way) STOP, or if cross-traffic does not stop.
If it is a busy four (or even five!) way STOP, it can initially be a little tricky to keep track of who arrived when, but with a bit of practice you get the hang of it. If in doubt, wait a bit.
One last thing to be aware of is if you arrive at the same time as another vehicle or vehicles. In this case, the vehicle on the left has to give way to the vehicle on the right. In all cases, I’d advise being cautious, and pulling out slowly just in case, even if you are sure you have right of way!
Turning On Traffic Lights
One of the more unusual, but quite logical when you get used to it, rules in the US, is that you are allowed to turn right on a red traffic light, unless there is a sign specifically telling you not to.
Sometimes there will be a right turn only lane, which you must use to turn if it is there. If the light is red, you must behave as if it is a STOP sign – approach the stop line with your turn signal on, stop, check for traffic, and if it is clear, you may turn right – giving way to any pedestrians who have the right away.
This is the sort of rule that can really catch out new drivers in the US, as it generally goes against everything you will have learnt in your home country, with a red light meaning not to go. However, it is important that you remember and adhere to it, as on a busy turn, if you forget to go, the traffic behind you might become quite irate that you are not following the rules of the road!
Passing Other Vehicles
Passing another vehicle works much the same as in other countries around the world. You are allowed to pass on a normal road if there is a broken line (yellow or white) down the middle of the road and it is safe to do so.
On multi-lane highways, slower traffic should stay on the right, and faster traffic should pass on the left. You should generally only use the fast lanes for passing, and otherwise always keep right.
In my experience, especially on the wider highways (10 and 12 lanes wide), the rules become a little less clear. In some states, on highways with more than two lanes on each side, you are legally allowed to pass on either the left or the right side. This means that if you are not driving in the far right lane, you have to be aware that faster traffic could pass you on either side.
In my further experience, I’ve observed drivers passing on both side even when there are only two lanes in either direction. My advice is to try to only pass on the left if possible, unless you are absolutely sure it is legal to pass on both sides in the state you are in. Here’s an overview of which state has which law regarding passing on the right.
Interstate Exit Numbers
Here’s a tip that flummoxed me for a while coming from the UK. In the UK, exit numbers on the motorways are sequential, so Exit 2 follows Exit 1, and so on.
In the USA, Interstate exit numbers are based on the number of miles you have travelled along the Interstate. If you pass exit 280 for example, and the next exit is ten miles along, it will be exit 290.
This makes quite a lot of sense, and helps you see how far the next exit is easily, but did confuse me for a while as I was expecting sequential numbers and figured I was just missing exits! It was quite the revelation when Jess pointed this out to me after weeks of driving in the U.S.
Buying Petrol / Gas
The great majority of cars in the US, especially rental cars, use unleaded petroleum fuel, and this is usually referred to as “unleaded gas” or just “gas”. Diesel is available, but is generally reserved for trucks or larger vehicles, so most fuel pumps in commercial gas stations don’t have it as standard. Be sure to check before you leave the rental car agency to know what kind of fuel your car takes
(unleaded or diesel) and be sure to note if it requires a certain type of unleaded, for instance some may be designed for premium unleaded petrol with an octane rating of 97 or higher.
Buying fuel is, in most cases, a fairly straight forward process. Nearly every machine has a credit card/debit card reader, and you just pre-authorise the card, fill up the tank, and your card is billed. Fuel stations like this often provide fuel 24 hours a day although the office will close.There’s no need to go inside and see the attendant unless you want to pay in cash, or you wish to pay with your card inside. If that’s the case, you have to specify an amount up front with the attendant, pay that amount, and then you can fill up.If you have over-estimated the amount you need, then you can get change for cash payments by returning inside, or it will be re-credited to your credit card.
It is generally easiest to just use the credit card payment option at the pump. However, even if you have a credit card, you may be required to enter a zip code at the pump (the one attached to your credit card billing address) and this generally won’t work if you have a foreign address so you may need to use cash in these cases.
Do be aware that petrol prices vary wildly from state to state, and if you are driving across multiple states, you might want to check to be sure it’s not worth crossing a state line to get cheaper gas. An website like this can definitely help you save money, also available in app form.
As previously mentioned, the legal limit for blood alcohol content is 0.08% in the USA. Unfortunately, there is no fixed amount of drink that gets you to that limit to help you, because there are a huge number of factors on an individual basis, from weight and height to metabolic rate and gender – even to what you’ve eaten that day.
Basically, it’s way easier not to drink at all rather than run the risk of being caught for driving while over the limit. In many states, if you’ve been drinking at all, even if you’re under the BAC limit you can still be charged if the officer feels you are impaired. You can also be charged in many states if you have passengers under 21 for any amount of BAC.
The majority of states in the USA require car insurance. There are two main types of insurance: liability insurance and collision / damage insurance.
Liability insurance covers other people and their property if you have an accident – so if you drive into someone else, then the insurance will pay for the damage. Collision / damage insurance covers you for damage to your vehicle.
The insurance that nearly every state requires you to have is liability insurance, with collision / damage insurance generally being optional.
Here’s an overview of the levels of insurance you will require per state to get you started, as well as further explanations of required coverages. If you are driving a rental car, it is best practice to have both types of insurance as damage costs can be astronomical!
Here’s another one that caught me off guard the first time I visited the USA – the rules around school buses are remarkably strict. You’ll easily recognise most school buses from their bright yellow paint, with most of them clearly marked as such.
What you might not have known is that when a school bus is in the process of picking up or dropping off passengers, all vehicle traffic must come to a stop. When the bus is stopped, big “STOP” signs will pop out of it (on most buses), and it will flash red lights. At this point, all traffic, including oncoming traffic (unless there is a a separated roadway), must stop and wait for the bus to complete its operation and move on.
These rule can vary slightly by state, with different guidelines on how far from the bus you must stop as well as other details – the best option is to check the rules per state. Here’s an overview to get you started.
Mobile Phone Use
This should be pretty obvious – don’t use your mobile phone when driving! It’s incredibly distracting and dangerous, and really isn’t worth it. Also tickets can be very expensive.
Of course, the legal landscape is a little different to my opinion. Some states don’t allow any hand-held cell phone use when driving, others forbid texting and internet use, whilst permitting phone use, other have no restrictions at all. Here’s a full run down state by state of all the laws – I expect this to update as more studies come out demonstrating the dangers of driving and mobile phone use.
Driving with Children
If you’re driving with children in the USA, then you’re going to have to be aware of even more rules. Yay! Let’s take a look at these:
- Safety Belts & Car Seats. Nearly all the states have specific laws regarding child constraints, which vary depending on the size of your child. In most states, you will need to be using either a child safety seat, a booster seat, or an adult sized seatbelt for your child, depending on your child’s weight. Some states also regulate the positioning of the car seat or booster seat, such as it has to be in the back seat or should be forward or rear facing. Here’s a full breakdown of the legal requirements by state.
- Smoking in the car. It is not generally illegal to smoke in a car with a minor present in the USA, although some states have either implemented or are testing such a ban. For a list of these locations, check here. However, note that many rental car agencies in the U.S. do not allow smoking in their cars or charge a mandatory cleaning fee for smoking.
What To Do If You Get Stopped By The Police
In a worst case scenario, you will commit a traffic violation and be stopped by the police. You can be stopped for a variety of reasons, including driving over the posted speed limit through to dangerous driving and lights on your vehicle not working.
If you are being signalled to pull over by a police vehicle, which will usually be fairly obvious as it’ll be right behind you with flashing lights, you should pull over as soon as it is safe to do so.
When your vehicle comes to a stop, you should remain in the vehicle, with your hands on the wheel and your seatbelt fastened. You should open your driver side window and if it is dark, turn on the vehicle’s interior lights. Do not get out of your vehicle or unfasten your seatbelt. Remain seated and wait for the the officer.
I have to admit that I was stopped once in the US for going over the posted speed limit. In my defence, we had just arrived in Yosemite National Park, the scenery was stunning, and the speed crept over the limit as we coasted downhill without me paying attention to it.
Unfortunately, the park ranger behind me was paying attention to my speed, so he pulled me over very quickly. Jess was not hugely impressed with me either.
When we stopped, the ranger came up to the car and asked if he knew why he had stopped me. To be honest, the best response in this instance is to say that you don’t know, because otherwise you’re incriminating yourself. Since I wasn’t that clever, I asked if I had been going too fast.
This was affirmed, and I was then asked various questions, including providing my driver’s license, vehicle registration and ID (as I am foreign I was obviously driving in the USA with a foreign license). I was also asked if I had been drinking or had taken any drugs, and if there were any weapons in the car. The answer was truthfully no to all these.
Thankfully, in my case, the ranger chatted cordially with me about why I might have been going too fast, and my confession of being distracted by the scenery on the downward slope was enough to get me out of a ticket. Note that since we were on a U.S. federal property, fines and violation penalties are often a lot higher, which is also the case for construction zones. I was very lucky!
You might not be so lucky, in which case, your best option is to remain polite, and if you feel the ticket was unfair, you can contest it in traffic court later. If you know you were in violation, you can just pay it and move on so you don’t end up with a record.
Finally, for lots more information on how to behave when pulled over in a vehicle, your rights, and what to do if you are for some reason arrested, take a look at this article.
Further Reading and Information on Driving in the USA
Whew! Well, that was a lot of words to hopefully help you get started. Of course, I can’t cover everything in just one post, so here are some helpful resources to get you on your way:
- The US Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has a comprehensive list of road rules, traffic signs and signals and more, on a per state basis, available here.
- The US government has a page specifically on driving tips for visitors.
- You’re also going to want somewhere to drive! Here’s some inspiration to help you:
- We have a guide to a USA Deep South Road trip itinerary, which includes New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Savannah
- We have a two week California road trip itinerary, as well as a guide to driving the Pacific Coast highway
- And of course, we have a full guide to Route 66, as well as photos from every state along the route and a detailed route 66 itinerary for two weeks
- We have lots more content on the USA as well – check out the USA section of the site for more resources.
- Finally, if you want a book to read, check out this guide to 300 of the best Scenic Highways and Byways in the United States for some inspiration.
Please note that this blog post is for guidance only and should not be taken as any form of legal advice. Check local state and federal laws before driving in the USA to be sure you are safe and legal.